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    “I think Ji-hyeon is the prettiest girl in our team. You know, the one who’s not just pretty but also has a good personality. But apparently, that’s not what the world thinks. Baek Ae-young seems to be the most popular.”

    “I see.”

    I looked up to see the lights that were so high up I had to tilt my head back to see them. Then I nodded.

    “You know, there are those trashy guys who are always causing girl problems. Confessing, getting rejected, confessing again, rejected again. They just can’t take a hint! There’s a saying, ‘Even the toughest tree falls after ten strikes,’ but they don’t seem to realize humans aren’t trees. Do they even consider how much damage they’re doing with their persistence? Selfish jerks. Why don’t they date someone from their own team? Or date someone while they’re on vacation? Or if they’re single. I just don’t understand why married guys are acting like this.”

    “Ugh…”

    “The issue is there are at least three or four guys who like Baek Ae-young. And she doesn’t want to date anyone. She thinks there’s no point in dating anyone in a restricted, closed-off place like this, as it won’t benefit her life in any way. She also mentioned she doesn’t have a preference.”

    “And so?”

    “So some assholes decided to break into someone else’s room.”

    Upon hearing that, I almost dropped my jaw to the floor.

    “That’s… insane!”

    “Exactly. Ji-hyeon found out about this plan. She’s really smart, you know. Speaks five languages. Normally acts like she doesn’t even understand Korean, let alone other languages, which makes her even smarter. Anyway, Ji-hyeon told our team leader everything.”

    Seo Jihyuk glanced at Shin Haeryang next to me, who remained silent.

    “And then?”

    “Our team leader swapped rooms with A-yeong. You know how A-yeong is only loyal to our team leader, right?”

    I heard a soft chuckle from the darkness. It seemed like Shin Haeryang was smiling.

    “That’s a bit of an exaggeration.”

    “Anyway! During our team’s rest period, her room was forcefully entered. They must have thought she was sleeping in, since the corridor lights were off. They must have been shocked to find a 193cm-tall man in the dark, lifting a 20kg dumbbell borrowed from Soojung.”

    “And then?”

    “I had to stop climbing the stairs just to hear this story, and then, urged by Shin Haeryang, I reluctantly continued my climb.”

    “So what happened after?”

    “We closed the door forcefully. One guy tried to run away, but Jaehee and I ran after him and caught him. The other three had already been severely beaten up. Especially the one who tried to block the dumbbell with his arm, his arm was broken, and when it fell on his foot, his foot also broke.”

    It was insane. Shin Haeryang, one of the people actually involved, didn’t say anything.

    “Team leader Shin Haeryang, is this true?”

    “I don’t remember it clearly. I was listening to ‘Viva La Vida’ when they barged in.”

    While inwardly rejoicing at the story Seo Jihyuk shared, I was worried about how they managed the situation.

    “And then what happened? Did the police get involved?”

    “Police? If they come from Hawaii, it would take more than one or two hours. It would take even longer if they come from Korea or Japan. If they come from the U.S., it would take double the time. Upon hearing the commotion, people who were resting all rushed out from their rooms. Four men created a ruckus in such a small room; the room was a total mess. Michael, who is in charge of engineering, called everyone involved and questioned them. Team Leader-nim was sleeping in Baek Aeyoung’s room when suddenly, the door was forcibly opened, and those guys came in and were violent. They said they had something to discuss with the new team leader, but suddenly he went berserk. Michael may be laughing, but he’s no fool. If he were a fool, he couldn’t have managed this chaotic place. After hearing everything, Michael asked why those four men entered Baek Aeyoung’s room while she was resting. Those bastards had nothing to say. They were talking nonsense. And then, a little while later, those guys suddenly fell on flat ground. They said they were injured while working, blaming it on James for not instructing them well, and ended up in the hospital. Some were forcibly sent back to their countries a few months later.”

    Seo Jihyuk seemed to have finished explaining and went silent. I felt a shiver down my spine due to the growing unease.

    “Intervention from authorities? Like the police or the military?”

    “…In this undersea base where 8 countries are claiming it as theirs, do you think any nation’s law enforcement will be here? It seems like the Dragon King would make judgments much faster. Anyway, when I saw Sato, who lost his right arm, struggling to eat with a spoon because he couldn’t use chopsticks with his left hand, I felt quite relieved.”

    I blankly asked,

    “Sato? Are you talking about Sato Ryusuke?”

    “Yes. That bastard. His personality is absolutely terrible. I heard he already got married in Japan when he was 23 or 24, so I have no idea why he’s acting like this here. So, given the mess in Aeyoung’s room, and that we threatened to make this incident known even in the remotest café in Mozambique if they didn’t allow us to move to a different building, we successfully moved to West district. All the other engineering guys are in the East district.”

    “The Russian team is also in the West district, you know.”

    “The Russians were more intense. They say a woman named Nikita or Irina tied an Australian guy to a chair without permission and tortured him for 18 hours. He went straight back to his homeland after staying in the hospital.”

    My God. What am I hearing right now?

    “Is there no way to punish these kinds of crimes?”

    “It’s uncertain when it will be decided; they’re just talking about it at higher levels. All of the country’s submarines are fighting over operating near the underwater base. Reconnaissance drones are colliding mid-air among themselves. The U.S. military openly says they’ll build their naval base right next to the underwater base, so they’re fighting over that as well. If a problem occurs here, there’s a lot of controversy over whose national laws will apply.”

    Shin Haeryang, who had been quietly listening, interjected, “…Officially, it’s made so that no one can be armed within the underwater base. It’s a kind of extraterritorial area. The people who initially wanted to build the underwater base did so with the hope of transcending race, nationality, gender, and age to live based on cooperation and reconciliation.”

    “Ah… The intention itself is good. But it’s difficult, isn’t it?”

    It’s very idealistic. It’s like they designed a utopia when they built the underwater base, but it doesn’t seem to reflect the desires of people living in reality. Of course, it would be better than anything if we could live that way. However, it seems they’re asking for too much, given the level of human consciousness.

    Shin Haeryang continued to explain, “They try to select people from each country who are ethically sound and unlikely to have big problems in human relations, but whether they’re doing it correctly is questionable.”

    “They screen them?”

    “Yes.”

    What is this all about? Was I screened before I came here? What was I screened for?

    “I was also screened before I came here, but how exactly are they screening people to enter the underwater base?”

    “You took a personality test, didn’t you?”

    “Ah… Yes. I took it online twice and also had an interview.”

    “Besides, there probably would’ve been a few more evaluations regarding ethics and ideology. You don’t know, Muhyun-ssi? Anyone with a fine exceeding 300,000 won would have been disqualified as well. I’m not sure about the rest; those criteria were implemented after I joined.”

    The only sound that was heard was that of footsteps ascending the staircase in silence. After climbing a few more steps, Seo Jihyuk suddenly exclaimed, “Ah!” I looked over, wondering if his leg was hurting, but it turned out Seo Jihyuk was calling out to me.

    “So, the reason women switching rooms with other people isn’t suspicious is because of this!”

    What was proven to me was rather that Seo Jihyuk has a good memory. My mind was preoccupied with the state of the underwater base that seemed to have poor security rather than suspicions about Kang Soojung and Yoo Geum-yi.

    I rubbed my forehead a few times and spoke while recalling my unsettling dental treatment.

    “Sato seemed to hold a deep grudge against Shin Haeryang.”

    Seo Jihyuk chuckled and said, “Well, of course, around the time Sato’s right arm, right hand, right foot, and, well, his right ‘thing’ were messed up, our team leader just got away with a sprained finger from punching him.”

    As Seo Jihyuk swung his arms as if boxing, I unintentionally stepped forward with my injured left foot. The rhythm got messed up, and all three of us stumbled. Ooof!

    “…..”

    Both Shin Haeryang and I, as we got back up using the staircase railing, said nothing. But it seemed that Seo Jihyuk took the silence as condemnation.

    “Ah… Sorry, both of you. It’s tough to carry someone who weighs 96kg up. Bear with me a little longer. I’ll buy a lot of drinks when we get up there.”

    “Didn’t they say they don’t sell alcohol here?”

    “That’s what I’m saying.”

    Despite Seo Jihyuk’s nonsensical comment, I chuckled, feeling drained. Babbling while climbing somehow felt faster than climbing in silence.

    But if I were to confirm with Yoo Geum-yi, we probably hadn’t climbed all that much. At first, she kept asking how many steps we had climbed. Now, she hardly asked anymore. If the number didn’t meet my expectations, it only resulted in disappointment or loss of energy.

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